April 20, 2012

Books That Affected Your Everyday Thinking

This is an old post from my other blog, Green Moon Pax, that I've been meaning to re-post:

Here at least is the list of books that affected the way we think in an everyday way---books that led to a paradigm shift, so to speak. I've listed them in order of receipt and have added a line indicating my relationship to the list maker. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who wrote in! (And it's not too late for other lists; I'll continue to add them to this entry.)

Kim Ball Smith
Former coworker and current book club member

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce: We studied this my sophomore year of high school, and I remember having a discussion about how the character Stephen didn’t become a writer; he was a writer simply because of the way he saw the world. It made me realize that you are what you do. If you write every day, then you’re a writer. Interestingly, this was also a major theme of the movie Sister Act II with Whoopi Goldberg.

Mamie Weber Gaver
Eldest sister
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott: This book instilled a lifelong desire to read. It changed the way I read; I could not put in down; I asked myself how characters I admired would react in situations. I searched out books written by the same author.

The Bible: The second is the Bible. God’s plan, God’s love, God’s sacrifice to save us and bring us closer to him is astounding. Being a committed Christian changes your life every moment.

Simple Living book (sorry I cannot remember the exact title): This may seem odd as it has many pagan elements but when ever I start to think I “need” something think, I must buy something, I repeat to myself “everything I need, I have.” I look around and realize that statement is true.

Eve Greco
Best friend since college

The Bible: A source of inspiration to be a better person, humility to know how far I have to go, comfort in times of trial, and wisdom in times of confusion.

Mrs. Mike, and the Little House of the Prairie books: These were favorite childhood/teen books; either loved them because of my sense of adventure, or they gave me my sense of adventure.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis: Just great books, as are most C. S. Lewis books. Along those same lines, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Jane Eyre—and probably other good writers—inspired me to want to be a better writer. (Hmmm, if exposure helps, I wonder if I went to enough art museums I might develop ANY artistic talent. . . )

Audrey Babkirk
Former coworker and current book club member

Conversations with God: My book is Conversations with God. I read it when I was still in my teens, and there were a lot of ideas that were revolutionary to me then (many of which I came across later in my philosophy and religion courses). But there’s a few notions from CWG that I think about on a regular basis.

First, the author puts forward the proposition that our bodies were meant to last forever—and that it’s our misuse of them that makes them wear out so quickly. I think about that whenever the topics of aging or healthy living come up. What if we spent as much time taking care of our bodies as we did working? What if our pleasures involved fewer toxic foods/pastimes/places?

The other one I like is that God is like a parent and we’re kids at play. God doesn't care which game we play (marbles vs. jump-rope), only that we’re safe, happy, and not harming each other. I also see this more and more in my relationship with my parents—they don’t really care who I spent my Saturday night with, and I don’t really care what house chores they did that day—it’s the telling and listening that matters.

Bob Cormier
Former coworker

I suppose it would help if I occasionally read a book. I've been trying to search my memory banks from childhood, when I used to read voraciously, but am drawing a blank. All I ever think about is work, pets, family, music, politics, and sex, and probably only that last item has produced thoughts that were inspired or fueled by anything I ever read in a book!

John Sealine
Former coworker

Concrete Countertops, by Fu-Tung Cheng with Eric Olsen (Taunton Press, 2003): No, this is not an abstract title for a novel about artists having angst in some inner city. It is exactly what it says it is: a how-to guidebook that explains, step by step, how to construct actual concrete countertops! I found this book at the local Home Expo, where I was looking into such surfaces. My wife and I had long been considering concrete as a very artistic and contemporary look when we had our house built in 2003. However, the costs and maintenance involved scared us out of it. So, we opted to go with Corian in our kitchen.

However, I am doing a countertop for my bar, which is a small space, so now I've revisited it. I can’t say it was a “life-changing” read, since it is basically a simple guidebook with photographs. Yet I found myself drawing a parallel between the process and my goals in life as an amateur musician. Like playing a guitar, at first one is amazed at the beauty, artistry, and freedom of expression possible in the material. It is permanent, original, impressive, and creative. So, as you get into it, you eventually come to realize that you need certain tools to pull off even the most basic of concrete counters. And the tools ain’t cheap. And the tools require some level of training. Then you learn that you must essentially be in the business of making these things on a daily basis in order to turn a profit and pay for the tools and training you’ve invested in. And then what once seemed a glorious art and labor of love turns into a backbreaking, knee-bending, hand-gnarling, finger-twisting task that grinds your very soul to dust. Unbreathable, toxic dust to be exact.

Yet you emerge from the dust, begging for more! Persistence pays off as your first counter pops out of its mold, and you feel a sense of great accomplishment. But wait! There's more! Now you must grind the surface . . . with diamond abrasive grinding pads . . .

What I learned from Concrete Countertops is that life is hard work, and it isn’t necessarily the product that is the payoff, but the struggle to get there that is special. My concrete countertops are still not done. They sit in my basement at this very moment, waiting to be finished and installed.

Lynn Weber

The Christian essays of Melody Green: Melody Green was the cofounder of an evangelical ministry that, among other things, published a monthly newsletter. I remember reading, as a new Christian of 16 years old, how helping around the house, making your bed without being asked, and other practical acts were part of the selfless, giving life a Christian was called to. Another essay was called “Honesty and Openness” and talked about being your true self. Melody talked about how she had always put on a front, both so that people would like her better and so that, if someone didn’t like her, she could say “Well, they don’t know the real me.” That essay helped me search for who I really was, what I really thought, and how to be more authentic. A third very memorable essay was the one she wrote on grief, several years after the death of her husband and two of her children in a terrible accident. At 18 years old I knew nothing about how to act toward people who had suffered a death or other loss, and the practical advice she gave has been some of the most best I’ve ever received. All three of these essays continue to impact my daily life, whether it’s deciding to take out the trash for Jay, stopping mid-track in a conversation at work to connect with how I really feel about something, or what I say to a friend in need.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig: I tended to glaze over such Eastern religious terms as “mindfulness,” but this book helped me understand it. One of his early chapters tells of some friends of his who are subconsciously annoyed by the dripping faucet in their kitchen, and (1) don’t realize they are annoyed, (2) don’t recognize the source of their annoyance, (3) don’t know how to fix it, and (4) don’t understand that it can be fixed, and by them. To this day, when I’m walking around with a vague feeling of nervousness, unhappiness, or anger, I make myself stop and ask: “What exactly am I feeling right now? And why?” I try to be precise and then confront it clearly, either by reconciling myself to the situation or feeling or figuring out what I can do to change it.

The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry: This amazing book is one of my favorites of all time, for many reasons. It’s reshaped my thoughts about pain, aging, torture, art, reading, and more. The 22-page introduction alone is worth getting the book for. In it Scarry talks of how pain draws the sufferer into himself, demands the attention of the sufferer until nothing can come in and he has no way of getting his pain out—that is, of making anyone understand what he’s going through. There is much more to it than that, but this portion made me more compassionate toward older people who talk of their aches and doctor’s appointments.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, by Molly Katzen: A coworker named Jay gave me this vegetarian cookbook when I moved into my first apartment with my friend Mary. It transformed my attitude about food and cooking, and I thought, “This is my kind of food.”

Sally Weber RiberaSecond eldest sister

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White: I remember sitting in bed reading this book and crying at the end when Charlotte dies. It’s the first time I knew a book could touch me in a deep way and really began my journey of being a lifelong reader. I still get tiffed when teachers show the video to young children. I want them to read the book on their own and experience the emotions.

The Bible: This book guides my life every hour of every day. Although there are many things I don’t understand, there is enough to understand about the love and character of God that it keeps me spiritually engaged and growing throughout my life.

The Final Quest, by Rick Joyner. This book has changed the way I view life in many, many ways. Rick Joyner is a well-known pastor and prophet from Charlotte, North Carolina. Now I know the word prophet is a scary one, but as in days of old, there really are people who hear from God about what is happening in the Earth and what will happen. Rick Joyner had a series of visions which he has written about in this book. In many ways it reads like Pilgrim’s Progress, the famous allegory by John Bunyon. In The Final Quest, we see events that happen in the invisible realm of the spirit written as if they were visible to human eyes. This book has made me much more aware and understanding of the supernatural realm of the spirit. Yes, there are angels around us. But we must also understand if there are supernatural forces of good around us, there are also supernatural forces of evil that we can confront and defeat. There is no telling how many copies of this book I have given away to people. Like myself, some are deeply moved and changed, others don’t find it interesting, perhaps because they don’t even believe it’s real. I also appreciate that in the prologue, Joyner explains his spiritual history and how he received the visions. If you want to read something out of the ordinary and possibly life-changing, I’d urge you to give The Final Quest a chance.

Don Weber

Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts: I have always been concerned about fairness. In high school I read Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The story was about a Tory (British loyalist) in the American Revolutionary War. American history then was taught pretty much as a black-and-white issue. This book gave a balanced view of the Tories. Kenneth Roberts is out of fashion now, but he wrote Northwest Passage and Arundel and other books about that time in American history. He also wrote books about Benedict Arnold, who was a great patriot in his early career.

John Mollard
Former debate partner in college

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD: In a sea of dietary disinformation Dr. Campbell is the real deal. He is a world renowned nutritional scholar at Cornell University, has authored hundreds of scientific papers, has sat on numerous expert panels, and has conducted many research projects for NIH and the American Cancer Society, etc.

The pinnacle of Dr. Campbell’s career was as director of the “China Study.” This massive 20-year dietary and lifestyle study was jointly undertaken by Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine and is billed as the “most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.”

Dr. Campbell distills and clearly explains the conclusions of the China Study as well as many other important nutritional studies. Most of us know that we are living in a toxic food environment, but Dr. Campbell lays it out so clearly that it is shocking. His thesis: Changing your eating habits to a plant-based diet will minimize or reverse the effect of chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

I read this book after my father had a massive stroke at the age of 65, leaving him in a wheelchair and unable to talk. Since then I have adopted primarily a vegan diet (plus fish) and feel like I am reversing the first 40 years of dietary neglect. Thank you Dr. Campbell for showing the way!

Song for the Blue Ocean, by Carl Safina: Provides a knowledgeable and disturbing firsthand account of how man is exploiting the oceans.

Lisa Ott

The Little Red Schoolbook, by Jesper Jensen and Soren Hansen: This was an eye-opener for me as a young teen. It was basically a primer on how to rebel against the adult universe—parental, societal, and conceptual. That it was full of “bad words” and frank accounts of masturbating, having sex, and using drugs made it the first book I recall hiding under my mattress. The one that set me off, at least in fantasy, on my first sexual adventures.

Madame Curie: A Biography, by Eve Curie: I can’t recall reading a book about or by a female author before this one, by the daughter of Marie Curie. It changed my worldview on heroes, which I may have known in my heart could be female, but I’d never found written evidence of it until this read. I remember being lifted up by her story, and by the way she handled her fame, graceful and understated; not like a man.

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell: I read this one while in northern British Columbia one summer during high school. Our family rented a house on a glacier in the isolated town of Smithers, B.C. I was basically by myself for a month (unless you include my brother, which I didn’t). The characters in the book were my companions. I would paddle a canoe out to a floating dock in the middle of this glacier-fed lake, and settle into the book for the entire afternoon. One time my canoe even came loose and floated off as I lay stretched out on the dock, engrossed in the story. GWTW was my first experience of literary rapture, though it’s embarrassing to admit now since this is not a literary masterpiece by any means. The way it ultimately changed me is that it didn’t end the way I wanted; a first time for me. I remember not believing my eyes as I re-read Rhett Butler’s final rebuff of Scarlett. Then, I became livid . . . at Mitchell. How could she end the book that way! How could they not end up together!? It was a small but real movement from innocence to experience for me. Bob says it’s actually the book that changed his life—the book that told me I can’t always have my way.

The Drifters, by James Michener: This was Michener’s one book that did not start with Adam, but rather with a band of 20-year-olds drifting through Europe and Africa in the 1960s (or 70s), a hedonistic travelogue that piqued my interest in discovering new places and cultures. Am not sure that it changed my everyday world view, but it had a great impact on my view of the world and ignited my desire to see and experience new places. Parenthood and the need to eke out a living has dimmed my focus and means to travel, but not my passion for it.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck: This is one of my favorite books and, in contrast to The Drifters, it introduced me on a more or less everyday basis to my own superego. Steinbeck asserts that there is only one story; that of the struggle between good and evil within us. Though I don’t experience moral angst as a daily phenomenon, I do regularly find myself facing ethical dilemmas, large and small, that call to mind his words: It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

An essay on abortion (can’t recall the title) by a Dartmouth logic professor (can’t recall the name).

Gerry Hogan
Former volunteer with Jay at Grassroots Crisis Center

Without question, the book that has had the greatest influence on my life is G. Nathan Prescott’s At Peace with Mediocrity: The Life of Millard Fillmore. Prescott, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Oxford, is the world’s leading Fillmore scholar, and a writer of great style and sensitivity. In his epic tale of our 13th president, he manages to convey with uncanny sympathy the story of a man who “from an undistinguished birth, through a long and shiftless youth, during a period of amazing and undeserved good luck, into a haphazard and indolent later life, and up until an ignominious death, remained completely untroubled by his dearth of gifts or talents.”

Never anyone’s first pick for anything, Fillmore was repeatedly rejected in sport, love, and politics, yet he always pushed himself back up, ever ready when a third choice was needed. He was the compromise candidate for Vice-President at the Whig Party’s 1848 convention, when party bosses sought “a man who has done and said so little that there can be nothing to dislike.” Fillmore was catapulted into the White House upon the sudden death of Zachary Taylor. Once in the top job, Fillmore managed to stand for and do little, save for engineering a series of ineffectual agreements that forestalled but failed to prevent the Civil War. Prescott writes, “Millard was Mr. Go-Along to Get-Along a century before the phrase was invented.” However, in 1852, Fillmore was the first sitting president denied his own party’s re-nomination. In a rare fit of pique and independence, Fillmore quit the Whig Party and, in 1856, ran as the presidential candidate of the Know-Nothing Party, a political movement without an affirmative platform but opposed to change of any kind. Again, Fillmore took his miserable third-place finish with that characteristic calm and grace, retiring to a small uneventful life in colorless part of America, “happy to be forgotten, at perfect peace with being written as a sorry footnote.”

How rarely in today’s literature are we permitted a glimpse into the lives of men and women possessed of the courage to be ordinary, fortified with the depth of spirit to sit comfortably with failure. Prescott does a great service to those of us who battle daily with our lack of positive qualities; by so artfully and non-judgmentally presenting Fillmore, the consummate C student, the ultimate second-stringer, the best the big bland middle had to offer, he provides more than solace. He offers inspiration.

Kim Hewitt
Former coworker

Book and Author Unknown: Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the book, or the author. I've often wished I could so I could reread it. The part that changed my view was a section that said that at the base of many arguments is an identity issue—one side wants to maintain a certain identity and so argues a certain point. It was like a light went on—BING! Got it. That’s why some people so stubbornly hold on to their world view or opinion.

Running Water Leaves No Scars, by David Reynolds: A kind of self-help book about Japanese Morita therapy. The author said every day is a chance to live with grace: if you reach for the soap in the soap dish, do it with grace. That made a big impression on me. Some days, it is all I can do—some tiny gesture. But if that is all I can accomplish, I hope I do it the best way I can and with as much awareness, love and compassion as I can. In fact, these days, I’ve given up on the big goals. I practice reaching for the soap. :)

Julie Kirsch
Former boss

The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz: I have a tendency to want to look at every angle, analyze all the data, make detailed lists of pros and cons before making decisions. This methodical approach can be good in situations like buying a new house or changing jobs, but it can be paralyzing when applied indiscriminately to all decisions. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz argues that having choices is good up to a certain point but that having too many choices can actually be a negative. He cites all kinds of social science studies that back his thesis, but one of my favorite examples in the book was his own odyssey to buy a pair of jeans. Visiting the Gap, he is astonished to find that the number of choices has proliferated wildly since the last time he shopped for jeans—boot cut or straight, button fly or zip, dark wash or light or in between. He finds this choice befuddling rather than liberating, and he realizes that an errand that had taken him a very short time in the past is now threatening to eat up an entire afternoon. Like Schwartz, I’ve come to realize that I do not have to optimize every decision—sometimes good enough is good enough—and only let myself get sucked into doing lots of research and lots of thinking when making big decisions or purchases.

Rose CareyFormer coworker

When Your Body Gets the Blues: It would be nice if I could point to a fiction book that has affected me as much as a nonfiction book, but one of the driest books I’ve ever read tops my list (it’s also a short book, so don’t be discouraged if you are thinking of buying it): When Your Body Gets the Blues, which presents results of studies of women’s hormonal levels and how they relate to serotonin levels and basically advises women to walk, particularly outside in such a way as to appropriately get the right kind of UV rays into our eyes and onto our skin; and also advises women to take the proper levels of vitamin supplements and to get good sleep in a dark place. If I did all these things, I’m sure I would feel better right about now. GNC’s Women’s UltraMega vitamins have nearly the ratio of supplements that the book recommends. I’m not happy that the neighborhood I work in isn’t conducive to walking. I loaned the book to a couple of people, who seemed to be unimpressed, so maybe my little list of recommendations above is enough for anyone interested.

The Temple of My Familiar: Fiction-wise, The Temple of My Familiar was an affirming book, mostly giving voice to some of the frustrations of being a woman, if you agree that sexuality and creativity/spirituality are directly linked, which for some reason many people don’t seem to think. It’s been a long time since I’ve read these books and I’m always sad about how much of what I’ve read I’ve forgotten.

Susan Pigman
Former volunteer with Jay at Grassroots Crisis Center

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, by Margaret Mead: There are a lot of books that have changed the way I look at the world, but the one that came to mind first was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies by Margaret Mead, which is a fascinating study of the roles of women and men in three very different New Guinea tribes. The characteristics of women (and men) vary drastically depending on the values of the society--from gentle farmers to ferocious cannibals. By contrasting these groups, she demonstrates the influence of socialization and cultural values in shaping personalities and roles of women and men and the great plasticity of human character/gender roles. To me, this was utterly convincing as a demonstration of the potential for all types of behavior that lie within all of us vs. those so-called innate "manly"/"womanly" characteristics.

Debbie Justice
Former coworker and current book club member
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer: This book forced me to view all religiosity through the lens of skepticism. As I read about the creation of Mormon and present-day rabid fundamentalist LDS, I was forced to view my own Judeo-Christian tradition as an outsider looking at original sin, Transubstantiation, and salvific crucifixion in a whole new light. I came away with more unsettling questions than answers. I don’t mind being foolish, but I hate being wrong. And Krakauer suggested that devotees of any religion may be both. Startling. Provoking. An important read for anyone who, like me, hadn’t rigorously examined the fissures in her faith before.

Ratul Hazarika
Work colleague

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig; Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra: It’s not easy putting one particular title at the top of my list, but I think it’d be Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics. The central theme of the first title, that the beauty of a well-designed machine points to the meditative state of the creator and that losing oneself in what one likes to do can be very spiritually uplifting, was something I always believed in. In Tao of Physics, I got to learn many things about Eastern mysticism that were totally new to me. Being familiar with the ritualistic and mythological part of Hinduism, the philosophical aspects that Capra dealt with was something very refreshing and thought-provoking for me.

Other books I really enjoyed were Siddhartha by Hesse, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Melville's Moby Dick, and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Tom Robbins is another favorite of mine; the first time I read his Jitterbug Perfume, I couldn't believe there were people who write that type of stories and have them published. And among my all-time favorites would be The Hobbit. The way the prose flows in Tolkien’s writings makes reading him so very pleasurable. It’s like a journey. I'd like to end this list with a favorite quote of mine: “It takes courage to read a book, for it can change a person forever.”

Jay Kissel
Former coworker, former roommate, current husband

Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda, and A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne. I never noticed until now that both of these books begin with the word Journey. I'm not sure that either of these were paradigm shifters for me in the sense of shaping the way I think about the world today, but as a teenager each brought me an unexpected moment of joy/sorrow which I still remember . . . a sense of a world that lies beyond our everyday experience.

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